For decades, linen has entered my life via the incredible numbers of religious buildings and manor houses visited during all those years without mentioning being born and bred surrounded by exceptional and beautiful Parish closes in the county of Finistère.
How could the growing, the harvesting and manufacturing of such plants as flax and agricultural hemp result in the appearance of so many architectural and artistic gems, mostly built from the XVth to the XVIIIth centuries (over 300 years), taking into account that The Breton “Renaissance” took place a century later than in France?
What I understood.
A combination of several factors were required:
1- High-quality seeds to be renewed every year to prevent the degeneration of the plant.
The seeds planted in Brittany came from the Baltic States then. Have a look at the maps below:
I went to Liepaja (once called Libau) a few years ago while touring Latvia with friends. I knew the merchants from Roscoff, Brittany, France, yearly sailed to that port to get flax seeds before spring time. A long journey in those days! I entered the tourist office to ask some info about that trade. Nothing! Not even a tiny thread relating to that commerce which was flourishing from the XVIth to the XVIIIth centuries. No trace associated with the Courland flax seeds! A disappointment!
2- Expert sailors on rough seas and able to navigate up the waterways to the ports sheltered inland. Roscoff sailors were real experts, most of them came from the isle of Batz;
3- Fleets of different size of boats, road and transportation infrastructure, horses, carts;
4- Soil : deep, well-drained and fertile;
4- Climate: Flax needs cool weather to grow, meaning sowing at the beginning of march or april in Brittany;
5- Skills and expertise of farmers and merchants;
6- Quality craftmanship in the fabrics under the putting-out-system, except in the county of Finistère, to be able to prepare flax yarns, to bleach them and to weave fine and thin linen cloths, comparatively the Irish had coarser linen cloth in the same period;
7- Shipowners, especially from Saint-Malo, Morlaix and Landerneau ready to sail to Spain or across the Atlantic Ocean to send cloths to North and South America. That trade went on until cotton replaced linen for making clothes.
8- Flax traders in the “hub” of Cadiz to find the best prices for the cloths ;
9- A whole system of checking cloth quality and of collecting taxes;
10- I almost forgot a very important factor: political stability in times of wars , commercial rivalries among European States ( France, England, Spain, etc…) and there were no guarantees!! Nothing new under the sun, I am afraid.